If there is any upside to today's unfortunate but unsurprising announcement that North Carolina forward P.J. Hairston's college career is over, it is the fact that it marks the end of uncertainty. No more limbo for those involved. Hairston can look ahead to his pro career, Roy Williams and the Tar Heels can focus on their season, and this once-proud athletic department can return to the task of rebuilding its reputation after a difficult couple of years.
The proverbial writing on the wall was made bright and clear on Wednesday, when the school revealed that senior guard Leslie McDonald was cleared to return after serving a nine-game suspension for accepting nearly $2,000 in impermissible benefits. As part of his penalty, McDonald will have to repay that money to charity. But in its press release announcing that decision, the NCAA revealed that it had not received a reinstatement request for any other North Carolina player. The message: Hairston's transgressions were far more serious than McDonald's. The NCAA knew it, the school knew it, and Hairston knew it. This was not going to end well.
Hairston, a 6-foot-6 junior guard who led the Tar Heels in scoring last season (14.6 points per game), had been making unpleasant headlines since last June, when he was arrested in Durham after officers found a small amount of marijuana in a car he was driving. A gun was also found outside the vehicle, but Hairston was never charged with an offense related to that discovery, and the marijuana charge was eventually dropped after Hairston completed a court-mandated drug assessment. You'd think that would prompt a man to be ultra careful behind the wheel, but a month later, Hairston was clocked while driving 93 mph in a 65 mph zone. He was cited for speeding and reckless driving.
Those transgressions were enough to get Hairston in hot water with his coach, but they also triggered an NCAA investigation into who those cars belonged to and why Hairston was driving them. USA Today later revealed that they were rentals linked to a convicted felon named Haydn "Fats" Thomas, a Durham-based party promoter who was friendly with several North Carolina athletes who attended his parties.
Last summer, The Big Lead reported that the NCAA was investigating Hairston's relationship with Rodney Blackstock, an NBA agent who played basketball for UNC Greensboro name. Hairston is also from Greensboro.
Thus was the North Carolina basketball program forced to do the limbo on two separate dance floors. First, it had to go through the painstaking, tedious process of declaring Hairston ineligible, gathering all the facts and then deciding whether to apply to the NCAA for his reinstatement. Once the NCAA's decision was rendered, Williams would then have to decide whether to tack on extra games for Hairston's traffic and marijuana violations. Williams, however, couldn't make that second decision until the NCAA made the first.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels played like a team riding an emotional roller coaster, losing to Belmont, UAB and Texas while beating the likes of Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. It's not a lack of talent that was keeping this team from getting its bearings. It was a lack of certainty.
No doubt the conclusion to the Hairston case will unleash a torrent of criticism about the insidious unfairness of the NCAA's "shamateurism" rules. Regardless of what one thinks of the rules, there is no question that there are certain lines a player must not cross. Driving cars you don't own and mixing with agents are two definite no-no's. It is also understandable why fans get frustrated with the pace of these investigations, but that is just as often the fault of the schools, the players and their lawyers as it is the NCAA's enforcement staff and eligibility committees. Because of federal privacy laws, the school and the NCAA face strict limits over how much information they can release. Hairston, however, does not have such restrictions. If he, his family or his attorneys feel that an injustice has been done, they are free to reveal all the pertinent facts. Hairston is also free to sue the NCAA if he wants, though there is no indication he will.
Regardless of whether this case ends up in a court of law or how it is rendered in the court of public opinion, the only thing we know for sure is that Hairston has taken his last dribble on the basketball court as a college player. North Carolina will miss his versatility, his leadership and his three-point shooting, although McDonald's return will help mitigate that last deficiency. (McDonald made four three-pointers and scored 15 points in North Carolina's loss to Texas Wednesday night.) As the school admitted on Friday, P.J. Hairston is a young man who made some mistakes, and he must now suffer the consequences. Come next season, he will have a chance to make money somewhere in the world playing basketball. Back in Chapel Hill, however, the only good news is that the roller coaster ride is finally over. Time to stop dancing and start playing.